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Western Pennsylvania nets notable status in hockey world

| Thursday, June 21, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
Penguins star center Evgeni Malking agreed to an eight-year, $76 million contract with the team on Thursday, June 13, 2013.
Michael Enden of Ionia Michigan installs 'UltraSkate' panels outside the American Eagle gate on Wednesday, June 20, 2012, at Consol Energy Center, Uptown. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Ryan Malone thought he had seen it all in June 2008, when the Stanley Cup Final returned to Pittsburgh and he was part of the action as the first locally born Penguin.

He was traded weeks later, but Malone's hometown has not stopped reaping the benefits of a hockey renaissance.

The NHL Entry Draft, which opens on Friday at Consol Energy Center, is the region's latest marquee hockey event — joining the 2008 and 2009 Cup Finals and the 2011 Winter Classic. The NCAA's “Frozen Four” men's ice hockey championships are slated to arrive in the spring, and the Penguins are optimistic of landing the NHL All-Star Game by the end of this decade.

Pittsburgh might not own the trademark to the title “Hockeytown” — that belongs to Detroit — but the city and region have become a destination for the hockey world.

There are three reasons for that, NHL chief operation officer John Collins said.

“Incredibly knowledgeable and passionate fans, a rich tradition and an organization that knows how to create one of the best fan experiences in sports,” he said.

The NHL Entry Draft was first held in Pittsburgh in 1997, but not since.

Opposing players might “joke that Pittsburgh is like Russia — gray skies, blue-collar people, all that steel,” Malone said. “But everybody in the league knows hockey is booming in Pittsburgh right now.”

During the past several years, the region has witnessed unrivaled popularity for hockey by many measurables.

The Penguins have played to 254 consecutive home sellout crowds, dating to the final three full seasons at old Civic Arena. Their local television ratings have rated tops among U.S. NHL markets in five of the past six seasons, and last season were highest for any NHL or NBA club.

Last season, USA Hockey counted more than 10,000 local youth hockey players among its national enrollees. Specifics for Western Pennsylvania were not available, but in 2011, Little League Baseball reported 28,100 enrollees for the entire state.

Former Penguins player Mark Recchi said the sport is firmly rooted in the psyche of Pittsburghers. He spent Tuesday at a youth hockey clinic staged at Ice Castle in Castle Shannon, one of more than 30 ice rinks or hockey deks that did not exist before the Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux with the first overall pick at the 1984 draft.

Their most recent first overall pick was Sidney Crosby in 2005, and Lemieux has credited that stroke of luck with helping save the Penguins, who secured funding for Consol Energy Center less than two years later.

“I do think a lot of fathers whose kids today want to be the next Crosby grew up watching our team,” Recchi said of the 1991 Penguins that brought the Cup to Pittsburgh for the first time.

Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' general manager, is a Penguins season ticket holder. He is speaking to the NHL's top prospects on Friday morning. Those prospects are scheduled to take swings at the Allegheny River from PNC Park tonight before a game between the Pirates and Minnesota Twins.

“These prospects will really remember they were drafted in Pittsburgh,” said Tom McMillan, Penguins vice president of communications.

The 2011 NHL Entry Draft produced four locally born players in the top 64 selections. Only one local product, Wexford-born goalie Michael Houser, is projected to be selected this weekend.

“I'm still incredibly proud of that,” said Dylan Reese, a defenseman for the New York Islanders who, like Malone, is a native of Upper St. Clair.

Reese, a seventh-round pick of the New York Rangers in 2003, starred for the now-defunct Junior-A Pittsburgh Forge from 2001-03.

“There were, like, five places to play hockey when I was young,” he said. “Now, we've got kids going to college because of hockey, getting drafted, and there is a general sense that the sport means as much to people as football and baseball.

“It's been a pretty dramatic surge.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rrossi@tribweb.com or 412-380-5635.

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